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“Off the Ruling Class”

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Stories from a Cold Case at the Cleveland Museum of Art

At 12:44 am on March 24, 1970, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a bomb exploded beneath the legs of Rodin’s The Thinker, driving the sinewy statue from his pedestal and face-first onto the snow-dusted plaza. The blast shattered six museum windows, and flying bronze fragments stripped chunks of marble from the portico columns. That night, investigators discovered just two material clues: the remains from the fuse, which indicated that the perpetrator (or perpetrators) had seven-and-a-half minutes upon ignition to scatter; and the four words painted on the east side of the pedestal: “off the ruling class.” The Cleveland Police Department (CPD) pursued multiple leads, but they arrested no one.

Rodin’s The Thinker deposed, along with the “Off the Ruling Class” graffiti, on the entrance plaza of the Cleveland Museum of Art, March 24, 1970. (Cleveland Memory Project: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library).

Rodin’s The Thinker deposed, along with the “Off the Ruling Class” graffiti, on the entrance plaza of the Cleveland Museum of Art, March 24, 1970. Courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library.

Fifty years later, the perpetrators remain at large or underground, perhaps beneath tombstones. The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) defers to the conclusion of the CPD: members of the Weather Underground bombed the statue. This view is not unanimous. Arthur Eckstein, author of Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution, offered a matter-of-fact dissent: “That’s not Weatherman.”

Whether or not it was the group best known as Weather Underground, the bombers left an indelible mark on The Thinker. Today it stands as one of the rare public monuments to the history of protest bombs in the 1970s. Sherman Lee, director of the CMA from 1958 to 1983, and his staff ensured that the bombers were not granted the last word on the prized Rodin. The Thinker also carries quiet traces of curatorial acts that shape the ways patrons have, since 1970, interpreted the wounded statue. Institutions cannot, though, even with a bounty of digital tools provided by CMA, dictate the terms of interpretation. Assemblages of firsthand perception and ready-made content are still stitched together by individual desires. In every corner of every gallery, art critic Dave Hickey suggests, “We are always looking for what we want.” If protesters bombed The Thinker fifty years ago because they wanted to bring the war home, more creative wants prevail today.

Cogitus Interruptus

The Thinker arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1917, a year after it opened, and quickly became an object of intrigue for Frederic Whiting, the museum’s first director. The Thinker at CMA was one of fewer than ten cast in bronze, at this scale, during Rodin’s lifetime, and one of eight Rodin statues acquired for the CMA, by collectors and benefactors, by 1918. Loïe Fuller, dancer and friend of Rodin, visited CMA in 1917 to raise money for the Red Cross, and to give a lecture on Rodin. A few months later, more donations from Fuller made the Rodin collection at CMA one of the finest outside of Paris.

After its brief appearance in the museum rotunda, The Thinker was moved, at Whiting’s behest, due to insufficient lighting, to the entrance plaza, where it stood as a modest tribute to The Thinker outside the Panthéon in Paris. For fifty-three years, The Thinker suffered the moderate indignities of bird droppings and wintry mixes, bearing witness to parties, receptions, and processions. Outside, The Thinker garnered plenty of admirers and, by March 1970, a select number of technically skilled detractors.

Within an hour of the bombing, Detective Robert Alberty, from the Special Investigative Unit of the CPD, arrived at the plaza. In his report, Alberty noted that the cause of the explosion was “an undetermined amount of dynamite.” Students in nearby residence halls at Case Western Reserve University wandered over to the plaza—and into Alberty’s files. “[He] was standing there taking pictures of everybody,” said a young woman to the Cleveland Advocator, and noted Alberty’s use of a subminiature Minox camera. “It can be operated in the palm of one hand, very inconspicuously. If you follow Detective Alberti [sic] around for a couple of years you can tell when he’s doing it.”

In April 1970, the Cleveland Press reported that the CPD was tracking “anti-Establishment advocates.” Of their six prime suspects, none had been eliminated. Two months later, all had been eliminated. An FBI memo of June 25 reported that the CPD investigative unit had exhausted “all logical investigative leads.” Additional information emerged over the years: the explosive used in the bombing was cheddite (a variety never used by Weather Underground), and the fuse came from the Boston Navy Yard. Still, the case has remained cold ever since.

The Media is the Message

That night, the wounded Thinker took on a new life with new resonance. On March 24, Lee arrived at the plaza shortly after Alberty and, shortly after that, instructed museum staff to apply a masking agent over the graffiti. The result was so effective that the message of the bombers was undetectable in pictures in newsprint. Only the photo above, likely lit by the headlamps of patrol cars, preserved the primary clue to the motive of the bombers, and it didn’t appear in print until decades after the attack. Whether as a favor to Lee or simply by happenstance, off the ruling class did not appear in Alberty’s initial report, nor in the June memorandum to the FBI.

A few hours later, Lee sent a four-point memo to museum staff: “1. The Thinker will be repaired and put back on its pedestal as soon as possible. This may take some time.” On March 31, Lee and his staff returned the Thinker to his perch on the south plaza with the help of a scaffold. Museum staff used poster-sized photographs of the Thinker on the south, west, and east sides of the pedestal as more durable cover for the graffiti. Into July, Lee and his staff diligently explored the prospects of The Thinker’s restoration.

That summer, Lee convinced John Canady, art critic for the New York Times, to help solidify his position against the attackers. In town again to review the new Asian art galleries (opened that June), Canaday used his July 5, 1970 review in the Times to celebrate CMA as a whole:

[It’s] the only really aristocratic art museum in the country. You don’t like aristocrats? All right, off with their heads. I am only commenting on the Cleveland Museum of Art as an anomaly . . . where the few people in the galleries have the air of knowing what they are looking at instead of challenging it as fodder for entertainment or protest, and where questions of race, war, politics, and, God help us all, Women’s Liberation, are beside the point.

Here Canaday had constructed a ruse. He knew about the attack. The Times had covered the bombing and, in order to enter the museum, Canaday had to pass within twenty feet of the crippled Thinker. With the masking of the pedestal on March 24, Lee denied the perpetrators the satisfaction of seeing their communiqué in newspapers around the world. Here Canaday took the opportunity to affirm Lee’s snub anew, as well as his vision of responsible museum behavior. Canaday’s use of “off with their heads” clearly mocked the distaste of the moment for establishment values, and offered a coded reference to “off the ruling class.” “It takes the idealist down a peg or two,” Canaday noted, “when he discovers that art flourishes in response to the economic and political stability of a society rather than in response to the worthiness of its ideals.”

In the art world, the impulse to restoration honors the definition of “conservation” used in physics: “the principle by which the total value of a physical quantity or parameter [e.g., energy] remains constant in a system which is not subject to external influence.” Should influences external to a museum take the form of the slash of a blade or the detonation of a bomb, conservationists are to restore the original energy of the work and, in turn, erase that history. Following suffragette attacks in museums in England in 1914 and after, the National Gallery established the prevailing model for resuming normalcy. “Gallery staff began to consider the retrospective discussion of attacks as regressive and destabilising,” wrote curator Helen Scott. “Once preliminary official statements had been made, the issue was no longer dwelt upon.”

For Lee, though, the principle of authenticity superseded the principle of conservation: the CMA Thinker was one of the few authorized bronzes of its scale approved by Rodin’s studio during his lifetime. (After Rodin’s death, his studio produced additional Thinkers.) To the studio’s invitation to accept a new Rodin, Lee declined. “‘The Thinker’ will not be repaired but will be put back on its original pedestal with a new mounting as soon as possible,” Lee noted on July 22, 1970, in an updated memo to staff about museum security. “I hope this can be done before winter.”

When The Thinker returned to the plaza, upon a new pedestal, in 1974, Lee and his team gave the statue a new caption:

The Thinker
By Auguste Rodin
Gift of Ralph King
Damaged 24th of March 1970

Henry H. Hawley, decorative arts curator at CMA, foretold the additional line above in an interview with the Plain Dealer in July 1970: “It’s very common for damaged sculpture to be shown in museums[.] . . .  The thing that is unusual is that this one is a damaged sculpture of recent date. Most of the others are in the antiquities sections.” Put another way: it’s rare for curators to display art in its vandalized state, when much of the public knows about the vandalism. The damage to The Thinker left Lee and Hawley little choice. In their departure from art world protocols, and opting for brevity over silence, they preserved a considerable measure of ambiguity. Was the damage caused by an act of God, or by the carelessness of the guy driving the catering truck?

For close to twenty-six years, then, those twenty-two extra characters sufficed. The Thinker’s repose was interrupted in September 2000, when it was moved indoors ahead of the restoration of the south plaza. CMA director Katharine Lee Reid, Sherman’s daughter, stationed The Thinker at the entry to the exhibition “Conserving the Past for the Future,” where “his story along with many others will be told. There will be interactive features in the exhibition and on our Web site.”

During the preparation of The Thinker for its return to the plaza, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban weighed heavily on Reid. During the global outcry over the destruction of the sixth-century statues, in March 2001, Reid served as the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Millicent Hall Guadieri, executive director of AAMD, shared a draft of a press release with Reid on March 1, noting that the AAMD must make a statement, despite the certainty that no statement could dissuade the Taliban. Over the next few months, Reid’s colleagues published multiple essays on the statues (and against the Taliban) in Orientations: The magazine for collectors and connoisseurs of Asian art, including James Cuno, AAMD president elect. When The Thinker returned to the plaza in 2003, its new pedestal bore a more elaborately worded plaque.

Auguste Rodin (French, 1840-1917)
The Thinker (Le Penseur), 1880-81
Bronze
Gift of Ralph King 1917
Tragically damaged through vandalism March 24, 1970

Confessions About the Thinker: The Series

The centenary of Rodin’s death in 2017 expanded the web of intrigue around The Thinker and the attack. First, a CMA curator received texts from someone who claimed to know the identity of the bomber—and that the bomber had been dead for forty years. “It’s hearsay,” said CMA director William Griswold. “We have absolutely no way of corroborating the information.” Second, a confession by Anonymous appeared in the Fall 2017–Winter 2018 issue of Cabinet. The author suggested he was a male member of the Weather Underground and one of the bombers of The Thinker:

These events are history: the formation of the Weather Underground in the summer of 1969; our clandestine delegations to meet Cuban and North Vietnamese leaders; plans for armed alliance with the Panthers; the “Days of Rage” in Chicago, and mounting clarity that our job was to “bring the war home” to make the complacent stateside pigs bleed.

Anonymous presented an eerie familiarity with the doctrine and dilemmas of the Weather Underground, as well as a more elaborate representation of motive:

As is ever the case with collective action, we came from different directions, and converged only in the act. Nor did we ever achieve anything like consensus as to the rationales for and/or symbolic import of our target … And so there was a mood, among some, that to bomb The Thinker was not simply to blow up the grim figure of surveillant white patriarchy, but actually to blow up thought itself—as the perennial antithesis of action . . . .

The attack upon CMA as a symbol of the dreaded ruling class, though, reveals how little understanding the attackers had of Sherman Lee’s method—or his self-confidence.

By all accounts, Lee’s acquisition strategy was conservative. Only in 1980 did CMA acquire its first Jackson Pollock, via deaccession by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), which Lee explained in a 1995 interview:

Lee: We were able to get a Jackson Pollock, a very good one, #5 . . .  at a reasonably good figure. It certainly is not as great a picture as [Pollock’s] Blue Poles or Lavender Mist or you name it, but it’s a very fine one, and it would never have been there and we would never have had one if we hadn’t had to go through that long period of both guerrilla war and subversion.

Joel Gardner: Reeducation. [laughter]

Here Lee drove one last punch into the rib cage of the radical body politic. Gardner’s reference to Mao-style reeducation camps—the sort that Weather Underground planned to build after the revolution—produced laughter, I suspect, for both men. The notion that Lee would change his aristocratic ethos because of radical political protest? Absolute bollocks. He wielded considerable control over the acquisitions committee, and he did so with a close eye on the bottom line to preserve public access. In 1980, the admission price to MoMA was $2.50, the equivalent of $7.83 today. The admission price to MoMA is presently $25. The CMA remains free. (Fees vary for special exhibitions.)

The most compelling act of intrigue, though, came from an apparent ally, cloaked in the form of a keynote address. On September 27, 2018, just a few blocks from the museum, artist Jim Hodges presented the inaugural address at Case Western’s Keithley Symposium, “Life as an Object: The Thinker as Prism.” The symposium was designed to review the life of the art object in the studio, as well as the life of the object once curated, and the history that it accumulates. Hodges’s own work, “Untitled (bridge of harmony),” is part of the North Sculpture Garden at CMA. During the kickoff for the symposium, the sound of a nearby concert band bled through the walls, went silent, and started again. Hodges presented the introduction of his talk and, justifiably distracted, repeated it.

When I happened upon [the Thinker] for the first time a few years ago, I didn’t know whose work it was. I didn’t know what I was looking at.  . . . [I] wandered up to the side of the front step and thought, “What is this?” And I’m circling it and felt kind of puzzled and I went back and met Reto [Thuring], who was a curator at the time . . .  and I said, “What’s on the front step?”

He said, “Oh, you mean the Rodin?”

And I was shocked. I said, “The Rodin?!? What do you mean, ‘the Rodin’?”

The agitation of his misrecognition was palpable and served as a prelude to a series of universal claims (“[With] each new viewer . . . this crime is repeated each time the work is approached . . . Boom! Boom! Boom!”) and nearly convincing reversals (“Everything I’m saying is ‘me.’ I’m not projecting it onto you.”). For art’s sake, Hodges demanded that the CMA abandon its perfunctory regard for The Thinker: either use contemporary technology to restore the statue to Rodin’s specifications, or bring it inside, alone in a room, and tell its story with “more than a simple plaque that acknowledges vandalism.”

In accordance with the first option, Hodges described the paramount task of curation: “A work itself carries the logic and reasoning of its being. All information is present . . . exactly as the artist intends.” (One obvious counterexample, as Emily Liebert, curator of contemporary art at CMA, has noted, would be ceremonial masks, which have been long since separated from their histories and the artists’ intents.) Dave Hickey, former editor at Art in America, anticipated Liebert’s position in 1997, just as web 1.0 was gaining steam: “In a poorly regulated, cosmopolitan society like our own, the discourse surrounding cultural objects . . . is a discourse of experiential consequences, not disembodied causes.” In the dynamic and productive web of creators, objects, and viewers, viewers maintain advantage.

It’s a process accelerated by digital technologies, especially at places like CMA. With the ArtLens app, designed by CMA staff, patrons have access to encyclopedic research on the museum’s collection, for academic, forensic, or playful ends. In turn, Hodges’s dictate for a dedicated space for The Thinker, complete with a correct reading, is simply untenable. With a wealth of digitized materials, patrons can construct their own provisional readings of their favorite art objects. Given the willful, unconscious, and ambivalent qualities that inform the communication between artwork and viewer, any effort to impose a “correct reading” of The Thinker would be bound to fail.

In terms of Hodges’s dictate for full restoration, precedent plays a key role in acts of curatorial omission or commission. “I thought we should face the fact that this event happened and it should be recognized,” Lee said, in 1995. “I, for one, am glad we did not repair it.” Let’s take Lee at his word. In 1970, he was responsible for carrying out the many edicts of the Board of Trustees. More than a decade after his retirement, he was free to speak with fewer reservations.

In 1971, CMA moved its entrance to the North Wing (architect: Marcel Breuer), which now provides convenient access from its multilevel parking lot. To reach The Thinker, visitors enter the modestly lit foyer and, on the left, pass by Gallery One, home to ArtLens and the forty-foot-long Collection Wall. These installations invite visitors to “have fun with art, use the interactive games and interpretation as the spark for understanding and social experiences with art, and find transformative moments of discovery that make art relevant for them today.”

The foyer opens onto the 31, 395-square-foot, three-story Ames Family Atrium, beneath a curving, cantilevered ceiling of steel and glass: the glorious centerpiece of an eight-year expansion and renovation project. In the museum’s south wing, which was constructed in the Beaux Arts style favored in the Progressive Era, visitors can take the marble staircase to the rotunda, pass by radiant displays of works by Tiffany and Fabergé, and exit onto the plaza. At the foot of the staircase sits The Thinker, the larger-than-life cast of might and muscle atop a six-foot-high pedestal, resting his chin upon his knobby knuckles. His flexed repose once extended down his calves through his toes—but his toes, along with much of the base, were turned by the blast into a jagged-edged plume beneath his rump, as well as a spray of shrapnel that ricocheted off the facade of the building, scattered across the plaza, and settled in the beds of its gardens.

Fifty years later, it’s still difficult to reckon with the ideological forces that possessed the bombers. Did they really regard The Thinker, as Anonymous noted, as “the grim figure of surveillant white patriarchy”? Did they know of the removal of The Thinker from the Panthéon in 1922, due to its socialist connotations? Had these radicals read the works of anarchist, feminist, and Rodin fangirl Emma Goldman? “Rodin, Steinlen, and Grandjouan were discussed and appreciated in revolutionary ranks to a greater extent than by the bourgeois elements that lay claim to being the sponsors of art,” Goldman wrote in Living My Life.

“Did we know anything about the sculpture itself?” asked Anonymous. “Of course. Yes. We were not ignorant. Our reading was uneven, but we were resourceful. And relentless.” And baffling. Does Anonymous seek here the reader’s sympathies by noting that, as part of the preparation for their attack upon “thought itself,” the bombers had a reading list?

The legacy of the wound inflicted upon The Thinker includes a generous reconsideration of the terms of communication between the statue and its viewers. First, it offers a stark reminder of the artist’s limited influence in the interpretation of their work. “The Thinker has a story,” Rodin noted. “In the days long gone by, I conceived the idea of [Dante] at The Gates of Hell. Before the door, seated on a rock, thinking of the plan of . . . the Divine Comedy.” In its next iteration, though, Rodin suggested The Thinker embodied “the fertile thought of those humble people of the soil who are nevertheless producers of powerful energies”—energies that took the form of strikes during the rise of French syndicalism. For art critic Sister Wendy, The Thinker at CMA once rose above human conflict. In his current form, “He’s been plunged into it; he’s exposed as vulnerable,” she noted, “and that makes him peculiarly, and tragically, accessible.”

The bombing made The Thinker especially accessible for two Rodin enthusiasts in Sitka, Alaska: Mary Stensvold, a botanist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the 1970s, and Don Muller, her husband. Mary and Don met regularly after work on the steps of CMA. In spring 1974, Don found a jagged, bronze fragment in a nearby garden plot. The next day, Don found another. Soon thereafter, Mary confirmed with a CMA curator the authenticity of the fragments.

Rodins, his and hers. Photo credit: Mary Stensvold.

For decades, Don carried his keepsake in his pants pockets; Mary, too, treated hers like a good-luck charm. She told me this story, a story she’s told often, and quipped, “I have an original Rodin in my purse.”

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